Be it a gift swap, cocktail hour with coworkers, or Friendsmas, make make your next gathering stand out by changing up the way you serve your guests. Creating a themed bar of food or drink makes for impressive, yet almost effortless, entertaining at home. From entrees to drinks to dessert, we've got your BYO bar inspiration right here.
Holiday entertaining food bar image
Holiday entertaining food bar image
| Credit: Getty images

This holiday season is like every other before it; there will be parties, many many parties.

Special gatherings within your communities, occasions with colleagues to toast a little break from the office, get-togethers with extended family, and oh, Friends-mas (Christmas with friends). I hear that's now actually "a thing." And while hosting any such event can be overwhelming, keeping the party mangeable on your end and fun on your guests' is totally doable. The answer is a build-your-own bar.

Creating a bar to serve food or drinks at your next holiday gathering is 100% the way to go. It's easier on you because you can set essentially everything up before the party, and then let your guests serve themselves--assembling their own custom creations. The concept of a self-serve buffet is obviously nothing new, but having a themed food or drink bar built around the menu item(s) you choose is a modern and playful take on entertaining that makes the whole shindig feel very customizeable and casual. Your guests can help decorate the tree, watch a Christmas classic, mingle, and eat as they please. The bar easily doubles as decoration, with colorful serving dishes and labeled components. People get to eat, but also participate in constructing their dish to suite their personal tastes, which is fun--and totally steps up your hosting game.

Whether you're organizing a Christmas brunch, a cocktail hour, or an Elf-watching party, there's BYO bar that will make your holiday festivities stand out. The best part is there are absolutely no rules; conceive the bar that's just right for your occasion and guests. Here are example entrees, beverages, and desserts that can be turned into dynamic bar spreads for an awesomely fun and stress-free party.


Waffle Bar

Fluffy Buttermilk Waffles
Credit: Alison Miksch; Styling: Buffy Hargett Miller

Yep, everyone loves a waffle, especially when it's covered in tasty toppings. Don't reserve the waffles for brunch, either; a breakfast-for-dinner bar is sure to be a hit. You can set out the waffle maker, cooking spray, and a large carafe or pitcher of waffle batter so that your guests can make fresh waffles as they please. You can also make the waffles ahead of time if you're nervous about a mess. Now, the best part about a waffles is that they are scrumptious and satisfying when served savory or sweet. Provide chocolate chip waffles or corn and cheddar waffles. Go all out and provide both. Ideal sweet toppers for the waffles include berries, chocolate chips, chopped nuts, shaved coconut, powdered sugar, and whipped cream. Greek yogurt, jams, honey, caramel and/or chocolate sauce, and maple syrup are best placed towards the end of the bar to finish it off right. As for a savory waffle situation, provide bacon bits, cooked and crumbled sausage, fried chicken, different types of cumbling cheese, fresh herbs, butter... and, of course, gravy.

Not a waffle fan? Create the same bar set-up using pancakes or crepes as the star item.

Mac and Cheese Bar

Chipotle-Bacon Mac and Cheese
Credit: Jennifer Davick; Prop Styling: Caroline M. Cunningham

There's so much more potential to a mac and cheese bar than you might think. The trick to a making a dynamic and successful mac and cheese bar with a variety of options is serving the noodles and cheese sauce separately. This allows you to serve whole wheat noodles, gluten-free noodles, and noodles of varying shapes, if you like. For the sauce, there ar so many directions you can take. Serve a classic cheddar cheese sauce, a rich sauce that uses chipotle and bacon, provide for some hamburger mac and cheese, or go with a Buffalo-flavored Swiss and cream cheese sauce. Solid toppings for mac and cheese include cooked broccoli, prosciutto or bacon, additional cheese, shredded rotisserie chicken, jalapenos, chives, diced ham, and diced tomato. You can also provide condiments like ranch, ketchup, and Sirracha for folks to finish their dish with.

Tomato Soup Bar

Tomato Basil Soup with Grilled Cheese Croutons
Credit: Jennifer Causey Styling: Claire Spollen

Soup is always perfect for a chilly, winter night--and it's super easy to make a big batch of. Spoil your guests with delicious roasted tomato soup, a creamy tomato bisque, or a tomato basil soup plus an array of hearty toppings like chopped pepperoni, garlicky roasted mushrooms, white beans, or grilled cheeses. Homemade crostini, croutons, or cornbread are likewise excellent additions to have on hand for topping and dipping. Oh, and don't forget your dairy. Various cheeses, like grated Parmesan, mozarella, and Grueyere marry well with tomato soup and sour cream adds a lucious touch. At the end of the bar, serve fresh basil or pesto, red pepper, salt and pepper, or even a little dish of ground turmeric for final seasoning. Most people have eaten tomato soup before, but your party is an opportunity to enjoy it in a special and over-the-top way.


Gin and Tonic Bar

Orange-Cranberry Gin and Tonic
Credit: Ralph Anderson; Styling: Buffy Hargett

Of course, you could do this with a few different cocktails, but a gin and tonic is easily customizable with different fruit and mix-ins. Provide gin (and vodka, for those that prefer it), Pimm's, and St. Germain for the booze, and have plenty of bottles of tonic water in an ice bucket. Slice cucumbers, cut grapefruit into triangle-shaped wedges, and set out clean and dry rosemary, mint, basil, and tarragon. You can also feature fresh cranberries, raspberries, thyme, cinnamon sticks, star anise, Meyer lemons, or any other winter citrus.

Hot Chocolate Bar

Barcelona Hot Chocolate
Credit: Oxmoor House

Oxmoor House

Hot cocoa is a crowd-pleasing, holiday favorite. The only struggle with hot chocolate is keeping it, well... hot. Enter, the slow cooker. You can prepare your hot cocoa by your preferred method and transfer the hot chocolate to a slow cooker, and leave it turned on low with a ladel to serve, or simply use a slow cooker hot chocolate recipe. If you prefer the old-fashioned way, assemble cups with your hot chocolate mix and provide warmed milk as needed. You may want to offer Barcelona hot chocolate, an irresistable combo of espresso and chocolate, as well. Toppings should include marshmallows, whipped cream, M&Ms, dark chocolate chips, chocolate shavings, butterscotch chips, various flavored syrups, crushed peppermint, and coconut. Prepare stirring spoons cradling caramel and flake salt, or put out chocolate-dipped candy canes for stirring. Be sure to include some of your favorite holiday cookies on the bar, such as gingerbread cookies or a Christmas cranberry biscotti.

Starbucks Bar

Starbucks cups 2016
Starbucks cups 2016
| Credit: @Starbucks

Starbucks cups 2016@Starbucks

Photo: @Starbucks

For many people, there's nothing like the Starbucks holiday cup. Swing by your local store and ask to purchase cups or purchase plain red paper cups and white pens to let your guests doodle Christmas scenes before creating their own customized drink. Provide coffee, cream, an alternative milk, various holiday-flavored syrup choices, whipped cream, sprinkles, cinnamon, and chocolate and caramel syrup for drizzling. You can even purchase or make copy-cat versions of common Starbucks bakery items, like chocolate chip cookies, iced-lemon pound cake, banana bread, scones, or a holiday version of the classic cake pops.


Sweets and Treats Bar

Cookie Trees
Credit: Melanie Acevedo

This is a season of treats, people. Make an assortment of baked deliciousness and supplement your spread with favorite store-bought candy. Your guests are sure to love walking into your home that has been transformed into what feels like The Nutcracker's Land of the Sweets. Display oversized lollipops or Santa pretzel rods in a vase, M&Ms in jumbo martini glasses, hang candy canes on a string around the table, arrange holiday cookies in a tower, snowmen doughnut sticks on a platter, make cookie trees, and showcase reindeer truffles on cake stands. Admittedly, this is more of a free-for-all buffet than a well-curated bar... but who cares when you're surrounded by sugar?

Cheesecake Bar

Tangy Lemon Cheesecake Bars
Credit: Jennifer Causey; Styling: Claire Spollen

Make indiviual cheesecake servings with this cheesecake bar recipe and let guests load on the toppings. You can make also make a no-bake cheesecake base in individual glass jars for a more portable dessert. To do this, purchase a Mason Jar for each guest, or another relatively deep glass jar, and fill the bottom with crushed grahm crackers or a small portion of a no bake crust recipe. Top your crust with a whipped mixure of equal parts softened cream cheese, whipped topping, and 1 teaspoon of vanilla per 8 ounces of cream cheese used. Chill these little jars on a sheet tray until the party starts. Provide toppings like fresh sliced strawberries, cherries, rasberries, more elevated fruit toppings such as cranberry-maple or strawberry, chocolate sauce, caramel sauce, chopped toasted nuts, crushed oreos, sprinkles, toasted coconut, etc.

A few final pro-tips for building your bar:

Put each indiviual topping in its own serving bowl with a serving utensil, if appropriate. If you decide to create more than one bar, serve it from another table and name each bar. Create labels for the all items on your bar. You can make labels out of folded cardstock, write on small chalkboards, or use a dry erase marker on small mirrors or on the glass of an empty picture frames. Or hey, keep it simple and use a large ream of craft paper. You can create a big menu for the wall with example ingredient combinations, and/or use it as a tablecloth and label the food items directly on the table. Make each bar your own by adding decorations and personal touches.